Francis R. Underwood, Distinguished Naturalist 2017

Fran Underwood. Photo:
Noel Rowe.

Imagine you are in the field in the closing moments of Rhode Island BioBlitz 2020 and in desperate need of help with the identification of a lepidopteran swallowtail, an avian swallow, and a botanical swallowwort. Your strategy is to call taxonomic experts for help, but two issues stop you in the tracks of your muddy boots. First, in the 21st century world of biology where taxonomic specialization is becoming the norm rather than the exception, which three biologists do you call? Second, the multiple pizza orders you made since last charging of your cell phone have left you with barely one bar and one call remaining. In a flash of brilliance you remembered a Rhode Island Natural History Survey meeting you attended on 17 November 2017 at the Quonset ‘O’ Club and knew exactly who to call. “I’ll call Fran.”

The ‘Fran’ above is Francis R. Underwood, the quiet, unassuming, incredibly competent naturalist who is the 2017 Rhode Island Natural History Survey Distinguished Naturalist. He is known throughout Rhode Island, and beyond, as an exceptional botanist, but his skills go way beyond the plant world to include entomology, microbiology, ornithology, and probably every other ‘ology’ short of criminology. In his professional life, Fran was a microbiologist for the State of Rhode Island, and a biologist, chemist, and microbiologist for the Narragansett Bay Commission.

Before exploring Fran’s botanical expertise, let’s consider just one of his impressive competencies in animal taxa, specifically lepidopterans. Fran is a prolific publisher of butterfly and moth photos on the Rhode Island Butterflies and Moths Facebook Page. His postings are often of somewhat obscure, unheralded ‘leps’ that he has correctly identified, but that in the bird world would have simply been dismissed as LBJs; little brown jobs. As lepidopterist and Rhode Island Natural History Executive Director David Gregg mentioned recently regarding Fran’s identifications that accompany his photo postings, “butterfly expert Harry Pavulaan usually just comments, ‘Right on that one, Fran, great find!’”

Kathy Barton, Fran’s long-time collaborator helped present the award November 17. Photo: Noel Rowe.

Sharing his vast knowledge of plants has been accomplished most successfully through the website ‘Among Rhode Island Wildflowers’ that he and Kathy Barton developed and later introduced in January 2009. Kathy manages the website, and as she graciously puts it, Fran “keeps us botanically accurate” and has the “street cred” to make this work. The website, a labor of love, is loaded with botanical information either not found anywhere else, or not found elsewhere in a single location. Updates on recent plant finds, lists of valuable references, the most recent Rhode Island Rare Plants list, and additional links to scores of botanical websites are just a few of the gems that present themselves on the site.

There are three highlights of particular note in ‘Among Rhode Island Wildflowers’ that call to be singled out. The first is The Amateur Botanist: Notes on Rhode Island Native Plants penned by Fran. Always informative, Fran’s offerings in The Amateur Botanist have led to a better understanding of the diversity of plant life in Rhode Island and have publicized the presence of species not thought to exist in the state. The second is the comprehensive illustrated lists of Rhode Island plant taxa including ferns, orchids, and violets. Fran, an accomplished photographer in his own right, took the exceptionally high-quality photographs that accompany these annotated plant lists.

Third in this highlight reel is a monthly challenge Fran has titled “What plant is that”? With apologies to the “So You Think You Can Dance” folks, Fran’s “So You Think You Know Plants” feature engages us all by posting photos and a brief description of a species that we are challenged to identify. Those taking the botanical bait and offering a correct answer by month’s end are rewarded by having their names displayed on the following month’s posting – a very creative way to teach and engage.

In addition to the significant contributions Fran has made through his writing, his photography, and his web presence, he has been a highly valued member of the Rhode Island Task Force of the New England Plant Conservation Program and a sought-after contributor to important additions to the botanical literature of the region. Not only was his expertise acknowledged in the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program’s Rare Native Plants of Rhode Island, but when Arthur Haines sought floristic assistance in Rhode Island for his mammoth compendium of New England’s flora published as the New England Wild Flower Society’s Flora Novae Angliae in 2011, Fran was one of only three experts enlisted. High praise indeed.

All of those accolades aside, Fran is a terrific companion in the field with the eye of a master, but a demeanor and sense of humor that can relax and disarm even the most taxonomically challenged novice. His enthusiasm for all things natural is compelling, engaging, and downright contagious.

So, if you want to know about lupine blues or blue lupines, hairstreaks or hair sedges, catnip or catbirds, or perhaps painted ladies or painted buntings, just call Fran, the 2017 Rhode Island Natural History Survey Distinguished Naturalist.

Keith Killingbeck
6 November 2017

Kathy Barton and Fran Underwood, recorded November 17, 2017, by Kim Gaffett.